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Abeja Dispatch

Trading With The Enemy? How One Company Dominated India
June 14, 2000

It's like there was some strange warp in the space-time continuum. Or maybe the cast of a movie showed up on the wrong set! I walked through the stone gate of the fort, on the shore of the Bay of Bengal, into a strange world of contrasts.

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The streets are wide, lined with trees and large, European-style apartment and office buildings. An Indian flag fluttered over it all, but the people in the streets don't fit the scene. There are some smartly dressed military men and business types, but it is mostly women in saris and men in lungis (fabrics used as wraps), nice cars and donkey carts, nurses and street cleaners. Like ancient ruins that are slowly being taken back to the earth by the native plants, these not-so-ancient ruins have been taken over by the native people.

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This is Fort Saint George, in Chennai (also known as Madras), India. A British man named Francis Day bought this land from the Raja (king) of Chandragiri in 1639, and it became the main headquarters for a Company called the East India Company. Unlike other British colonies, likeZimbabwe or Canada, the British didn't come here to live, only to trade.

Everyone wanted to trade with India. In Medieval times, the Arab traders had a monopoly on the trade route between Asia and Europe. They would cross the mountains and deserts in camel caravans along the legendary Silk Road.

Europeans wanted in on the action and were searching desperately for a sea route. That's why Columbus made his famous voyage westward in 1492, with the radical idea that the world is round instead of flat. I sure hope he was right, or we fearless Worldtrekkers will never get home!

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As I'm sure you know, Columbus thought he'd made it to India, but he was a little lost. The dark-skinned, dark-haired natives of the Americas are still called 'Indians' because of his mix up! Five years later, a Portuguese sailor, Vasco Da Gama, figured out that Africa actually ends at the Cape of Good Hope and that he could sail around it, and on to India. It's hard to imagine, in this world where there is a globe in every classroom, 24-hour world news updates on TV, Satellite Global Positioning systems, and a group of world trekkers e-mailing dispatches from all corners of the planet, that these guys figured it all out from scratch!

Map
So the Portuguese reached India in 1497, and set up the first European colony over in Goa. If they had been as organized and effective as the British were when they arrived a century later, maybe there would be bullfights, instead of cricket, being played in the public parks.

But the British, obviously, were powerful expansionists. Unless you're from Britain, you can thank colonialism for the fact that you speak English! Queen Elizabeth I of England, in 1600, granted a company called the East India Company exclusive trading rights with India. Doesn't it seem odd to you that the British Queen thought it was within her power to decide who could or could not trade with this entire huge subcontinent? The French and Portuguese didn't care, and I bet the Indians didn't even know!

As I look at the cannons and fortress, it's hard to remember the odd fact that this all belonged to a company, one of the first "multinational corporations" ever, and not to a government. Over the next 250 years, the East India Company slowly gained control over all of India and had a huge army made of European officers and local Indian enlisted men. And we complain about the power of multinationals today!

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"I don't care what religion they are, as long as they make a good cup of tea!" joked the East India Company's employees. The Queen had made it illegal for missionaries to come to India. Trade was the only acceptable activity. Still, they built St. Mary's Church here, inside the Fort, for the Europeans. The steeple pokes out high over the trees. "This is the oldest Anglican Church East of the Suez." The sign out front reads. "Consecrated in 1680." It also brags about the "bomb-proof vaulted roof." That's a quality I never thought to look for in a church.

I slip off my shoes (I am still in India, after all), and walk inside what could be a small English church anywhere in the world, until you read the marble memorial stones. This guy was killed in a war in Northern India, that guy was lost at sea somewhere around the Cape of Good Hope. And another poor man was 'killed in an encounter with a tiger.' Bummer of a way to go.

Of the four largest cities in India-Mumbai (Bombay), Delhi, Chennai (Madras) and Calcutta, all but Delhi were founded by the East India Company as ports. From those three main bases, the Company spread its power across the entire subcontinent.

At the time, India was divided into what are known as "princely states." They were small areas, ruled by a local raja. Instead of banding together, these rajas used the patronage of the colonial powers to fund their internal bickering. The Company would make treaties with different rulers, supply them with arms or other support, and then allow them to wipe out their enemies. The French and the British would sponsor different sides of the dispute in areas they wanted to control. Then, basically, the local people would fight it out, and whoever's side won got control of the area. It's the basic ploy of divide and conquer.

Links:
The East Asia Company 1
The East Asia Company 2

Treaties were signed between the local rulers and the Company, stating that the British could remove any ruler for "maladministration." That means that the local rulers basically became puppets for the British. If the raja didn't support the wishes of the Company, he would be replaced by someone who did.

Over the course of 250 years, though, things had changed. Missionaries were arriving, and many of the officers and Company employees really treated the Indians poorly. In 1857, a rumor began to circulate that the British were going to force everyone to convert to Christianity, and that they would start by defiling those of other religions.

The Company's glory days ended when they issued new ammunition cartridges to their troops. The top had to be bitten off before being loaded into the gun, and a rumor spread that the cartridges were greased with animal fat. The Muslims were told that the fat was pig fat. Since pigs are considered unclean, to bite pig fat would defile a religious Muslim. The Hindus were told it was cow fat. Since cows are holy to Hindus, biting cow fat would defile them!

The troops
Vocabulary

subcontinent - a large land mass, smaller than a continent
missionaries - those who travel to spread their religious belief
patronage - support by someone more powerful
defiling - making unclean or impure
mutinied - to rebel against an organized authority

mutinied, starting in the north! They shot their British officers and marched to Delhi, where they massacred many Europeans. The mutiny spread throughout India.

Needless to say, all trust was lost between the native Indians and the British. Britain revoked the East India Company's charter, and India became an official colony of Britain. Queen Victoria was named "Empress of India," by the British, of course. I wonder if the majority of the Indian people even knew that there was a change.

The fort left me with a lot to ponder as I walked back outside of its massive walls, into the bustling Indian chaos I've grown to love.

Abeja

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...abejahummel@bigfoot.com
 

Andrew - Burial at Sea: Being Thrown to the Fishes in Teeming Varanasi
Abeja - Trading With The Enemy? How One Company Dominated India
Andrew - Follow the Yellow Brick Road (to meet an eight year old monk?)!
Monica - Serving the Poorest of the Poor: Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Jasmine - Village of Angels

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